Repentance: the beginning and end of our spiritual journey
The period before the great Feast of the Death and Resurrection of the Lord (which constitute a single feast), known as Great Lent, has the purpose of preparing us adequately for this great Feast. What does “adequate” preparation consist of? Many things:
- Reflecting on the great mystery of our salvation
- Reading the holy scripture and the lives and writings of the Saints
- Turning our mind with humility and gratitude to God
- Intensifying the prayer
- Attending the services which will help us enter into the proper mood and spirit
- Participating in the sacraments of confession and holy communion
- Practicing the virtues, especially charity and love, and
- Doing whatever will elevate us spiritually and make us resemble Christ.
The beginning, however, of all the above is the most fundamental virtue of a Christian: repentance.
The Triodion started with the parable of the Publican and the Pharisee. Its main theme was repentance. No surprise here. Repentance is at the start of our spiritual journey. What may come to us as a surprise is that it also constitutes the end, the pinnacle of the spiritual life. Thus, we see that today, the last Sunday of Lent, on which we commemorate our holy Mother Mary the Egyptian, the holy Church has not so coincidentally placed the same subject as on the first Sunday of the Triodion: Repentance. Repentance is the beginning and the end.
The story of St. Mary the Egyptian is familiar to all. The holy Church places her repentant figure before us, in order that, as the holy Lent comes to an end, the lazy and unrepentant sinners may come to repentance, having her example before their eyes. We can also mention other examples of complete repentance. Two come from the Gerontikon (The Wisdom of the Elders), that of Taisia, the pious girl turned prostitute, who then repented and died cleansed, and that of the Deacon who sinned but repented and found mercy before God. Other examples of repentance from the life of the Church are those of St. Moses the Ethiopian, St. Augustine, St. Pelagia, while in the Bible we have the examples of David the Prophet-king and of king Manasse.
The prophet-king David fell into the double sin of murder and adultery. His repentance became proverbial, and there is no Church service in which we don’t recite his penitential psalm: “Have mercy on me, O God.” We need to develop his conscience, his contrition, and his fear of God, to also repent and change our lives once and for all. As he had prophet Nathan to help him see clearly his sin, we too need a spiritual Father, a confessor, who will tell us, “Change, because if you persist in this state you will die.”
Then we have the example of King Manasse, the wicked king of the Jews who reigned for 55 years. It shows us that it is never too late to repent; it also show us the longsuffering of God, who awaits the repentance of the sinner and forgives fully one’s life of sinfulness, as long as the repentance is sincere. He needed some “help” by God to repent. Losing his kingdom to the Assyrians and being dragged captive to Babylon did the trick for him. We hear his moving prayer on every Great Compline service (and if you missed them, the last one is tomorrow night).
Another biblical example of repentance after a life of wickedness we find in the person of the thief on the cross and of the sinful woman, who were forgiven by Christ. Another example that comes from the life of the Church is that of Bishop Potamios. He repented in public of his sin. He held back his shame and confessed his sin before the entire synod. A sin confessed is no longer accounted as sin.
Repentance is not as easy as it may seem. It is far more radical than what we perceive it to be. It requires a change of mind (this the meaning of the Greek word metanoia), a re-orientation of our entire life. But our ego will try to present every action of ours as justifiable. It will find some excuse to exonerate us from guilt and suppress the remorse of our conscience. But one cannot continue to sin and call himself a repentant. One must eradicate sin and the source of sin, the passion, from his life, if one is true to himself. One cannot lead an immoral life and still say that he has fully repented.
There was this old man who was coming to confession frequently, only to confess the same kind of sins over and over. He didn’t have the will power to extricate himself from the passion that was controlling his life. To truly repent means to turn ourselves toward God. It means that one has a firm resolve never to sin again. If one prays to God to forgive him of his sins, knowing full well that he intends to commit the same sins over and over, this is not repentance, but travesty.
Maybe we know we are not in God’s way, maybe we know that our ways are not entirely pleasing to God. Maybe we know we don’t live and act righteously in the presence of God, but it seems we need “something” to happen to shake us up from our apathy, our stupor, our complacency, and our sleep of death. Like St. Mary the Egyptian we need to be startled in order to come to our senses.
In a deeper sense one does not repent of his sins because they offend God, nor because they deserve eternal punishment, but because they are responsible for crucifying the Lord. Our sins are His whippings, as are the lance that pierced the side of the Redeemer and the nails that transfixed His immaculate hands and feet. They reveal that one has not become grateful for the sacrificial death of Christ and the extent of His love for us. The continuation of our sinning is like re-crucifying the Lord of glory.
It’s wonderful, my brothers and sisters, isn’t it, that we have such a good, merciful and compassionate God, who forgives all our iniquities, as long as we sincerely repent of our sins, and we unite ourselves with Him who is our life.
The Father sacrificed His own Beloved Son for us sinners. How can He hold anything back from us? Forgiveness is His business. Let’s make repentance our business.
Καλὴ Ἀνάσταση, my brothers and sisters: A Blessed Resurrection!